On the Irrational Instincts of Psychologists and Anthropologists

William Morton Wheeler was, like E. O. Wilson, an expert on social insects. In his book, “Social Life Among the Insects,” published in 1924, he wrote,

The whole trend of modern thought is toward a greater recognition of the very important and determining role of the irrational and the instinctive, not only in our social but also in our individual lives.

Oddly enough, the same statement would be as accurate today as it was then. Somehow, in the intervening years, we were derailed by the absurd behaviorist psychology of Skinner, Montagu, et.al., and the equally ridiculous “Not in our Genes” anthropology of Lewontin and Levins. Their work never really made any sense. For the most part, they were political ideologues, and their “science” was whatever was necessary to fit their narratives. For a time, and a long time, at that, politics trumped science in psychology and anthropology. For decades, it looked like Trofim Lysenko was winning.

Now, thanks to some remarkable advances, notably in neuroscience, but in many other scientific bailiwicks as well, the Montagus and Lewontins find themselves in a niche with such other variants of their species as the creation “scientists” where they have always belonged.

Since we have now come full circle, perhaps it would be well if the psychologists and anthropologists would leave off chasing the latest scientific trends for a time, and look back over their shoulders. They really owe us an explanation. How is it that people who claim to respect scientific truth were capable of deluding themselves and the rest of us for so long? What are the irrational aspects of our nature as human beings that made it possible for major branches of the sciences to be hijacked by political ideologues over a period of decades? Let them explain themselves. It would go a long way towards restoring their credibility.

Global Warming Histrionics and Nuclear Energy

The field of global warming has become a happy hunting ground for holier-than-thou poseurs and ideologues on both sides. This is evident from the tone of the debate. The two sides have congealed into ideological in-groups that demonize the opposition and reveal all the inaccessibility to logical argument typical of such groups. For the “antis” their opponents are “environmental wackos.” For the “pros,” their opponents are “deniers.” That’s unfortunate, because it’s probable that global warming is real, that it is dangerous, and that it would behoove us to take effective action to stop it. Some of the arguments on both sides may be found here and here.

There will certainly be “action,” in the form of political grandstanding, but effective action is another story. A big part of the problem is that the environmental scientists, the people who should be sounding the alarm, have lost their credibility. They have cried “wolf” too many times, as documented, for example, by Bjorn Lomborg in his “Skeptical Environmentalist.” When they responded to Lomborg’s book by collecting a gang of ideological shills posing as scientists into a kangaroo court that accused Lomborg of “scientific dishonesty,” they lost what credibility they had left. As a result, in terms of social influence, they are now limited to preaching to the choir, because no one else will listen to them.

The result has been the co-option of the debate by ideologues referred to above, accompanied by the usual stifling of intelligent debate. Anyone who disputes any aspect of the “absolute truth” of global warming automatically becomes a “denier,” or, in other words, the evil denizen of an out-group. “Winning” the argument has now become much more important than actually doing anything effective to solve the problem. This is demonstrated by the way in which, with a few noteworthy exceptions, the global warming zealots are studiously ignoring the option of nuclear power. A rapid transition to nuclear power production is the single most effective, and at the same time most environmentally benign action we could take to combat global warming. The fact that the ideologues are ignoring this part of the solution demonstrates that, in fact, for them the pose is everything, and the reality nothing. They really don’t mind a little global warming as long as it gives them one more chance to climb up on the moral high ground a strike heroic poses as the saviors of the planet.

Global Warming “Good Science” on the Left

“Science” as a litmus test for political loyalty: If you don’t believe in the absolute truth of global warming with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, then you are not only “unscientific,” but you are evil and a moron to boot.

If memory serves, there used to be a similar phenomenon known as “scientific” Marxism/Leninism.

Personal Genetic Testing – One More Step

Personal genetic testing began mainly as a tool for genealogists. The next step, testing for health risks, has already been taken. As the technology continues to develop, individuals will gain increasing control over their own genetic futures. They will, that is, unless the many who, for one reason or another, are opposed to these developments are able to stop them. The only viable way to do that is by enlisting the power of the state. They will certainly make the attempt. It will be interesting to see if they succeed. The forces that have driven human evolution for hundreds of thousands of years have, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist. The outcome of the battle will determine what they will be in the future.

Another Paradigm Shifts: The Hunting Hypothesis, Ardrey, and “Pop Ethology”

In 1976, Robert Ardrey published the last in a series of books about the evolution of human nature, entitled “The Hunting Hypothesis.” Ardrey was one of the great thinkers of the 20th century. Unfortunately, his thoughts were not politically correct at the time. They posed a direct challenge to any number of the ideological sacred cows of belief systems ranging from behaviorist psychology to Marxism. They implied that human nature was not infinitely malleable, but based on innate predispositions that rendered mankind unsuitable for the various and sundry utopias the ideologues were cobbling together. In a word, Ardrey had positioned himself squarely in the out-group of all these ideologically defined in-groups. A great collective shriek went up. As usual in such cases, Ardrey’s challenge was not met with dispassionate logic. Rather, he was vilified as a “fascist,” ridiculed as a “pop ethologist,” and denounced as a dilettante playwright who dared to invade the territory of “real scientists.” One would do well to go back and read his books today, because, as it happens, Ardrey was right and the ideologues posing as “scientists” who vilified him were wrong.

In particular he was right about the hunting hypothesis. The best argument his opponents could come up with against it was the absurd claim that, other than a few tortoises and other slow-moving animals, our early meat eating had been limited to scavenging. The idea that the rapid growth of brains with ever increasing energy requirements could have been fueled by the scavenging of four-foot tall, slow moving creatures who had somehow managed to beat sharp-eyed vultures and speedy hyenas to their feasts was really as absurd then as it is now. Ardrey demolished the notion in the first chapter of his book, but, like a dead man walking, it staggered on for years, propped up by the bitter faith of the ideologues.

I suspected at the time “The Hunting Hypothesis” was published that Ardrey and thinkers like him would eventually be vindicated, assuming free research could continue without ideologically imposed restraints. I never imagined it would happen so soon. It’s still hard for me to believe that we’ve passed through such a thorough paradigm shift, and I’m continually surprised when I see articles such as this one, entitled “Pre-humans had Stomach Cramps,” that appeared on the website of the German magazine “Der Spiegel” today. Among its matter-of-factly presented paragraphs regarding the meat eating habits of Australopithecus afarensis, a hominid that lived more than two million years ago, one finds,

The question of when meat consumption began is important because of its association with the development of a larger brain in pre- and early humans. In fact, the human brain is three times as big as that of a chimpanzee. In order to build up an organ of such dimensions, a very large and continuous supply of nourishment must be guaranteed, and that requires meat.

Hunting is the only way of systematically bringing down animals, and this, in turn, assumes a bigger brain. As with the question of what came first, the chicken or the egg, one can’t be sure what came first, meat eating or a larger brain. However, anthropologists assume that, in the beginning, there must have been at least occasional consumption of meat, because, without it, the brain could not have expanded in volume for purely physical reasons.

All this is presented in dead pan fashion, as if no other opinion could ever have prevailed, or the subject could ever have been the subject of the least controversy. Sad, that Ardrey could not have lived to see it.

And the moral of the story? Perhaps we should recall the words of T. S. Eliot from “Little Gidding,”

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

We live too much in the present, breathlessly awaiting the latest news from the worlds of science and politics. Occasionally, we would do well to recall that some very bright people, with a very different perspective, not to mention very different standards of political correctness, actually lived before our time. It would behoove us to learn from them if we really want to understand the time we’re in now. Never accept the moral certainties of today. Go back to the sources, and find out for yourself.

Nuclear Power: Thoughts on Thorium

Rod Adams has an interesting post on thorium power over at Atomic Insights. I tend to think that nuclear power is more environmentally benign than the alternatives, such as paving thousands of square kilometers of our environmentally fragile desert southwest with solar collectors. If we do restart the nuclear industry, it will also make a lot more sense to build breeders of the type mentioned in Rod’s post, which produce more fuel than they consume during operation, than to just burn up all the uranium 235 we can find in natural uranium.

There are two basic breeder reactor fuel cycles. In the first, uranium 238, which makes up 99.3% of natural uranium, is converted to plutonium 239. In the second thorium 232, which is more abundant than natural uranium, is converted to uranium 233. Both are fissile reactor fuels. Both can also be used to make nuclear weapons. If we breed either of these isotopes, it is essential that we be sure of one thing; that they never fall into the wrong hands, either now or in 10,000 years from now. For that reason, it seems to me that thorium breeders are the better of the two options.

As noted above, both types of breeders would produce fissile material that could be used to make a bomb. In both cases, the material could be separated from spent fuel using relatively straightforward chemical methods. However, spent reactor fuel remains highly radioactive for many years after it is removed from a reactor core. It would be lethal to work with without highly specialized equipment unlikely to be available to other than technically advanced states. In the case of thorium breeders, however, the fissile uranium 233 would be contaminated with uranium 232, a short-lived, highly radioactive isotope that could not be separated from the U233, making it even more difficult to work with than plutonium.

In both cases, the levels of radioactivity of the spent fuel would decay exponentially over time, gradually making it easier to handle the material. Eventually, it would become possible for non-state actors to separate the bomb-grade material. It is immaterial whether this happens in a thousand years, or ten thousand years. We cannot simply put such material in a nuclear storage facility and leave it for future generations to deal with. In the case of plutonium, the only way to reliably eliminate it, other than, perhaps, rocketing it into the sun, would be to burn all of it up. However, in the case of U233, it could be “denatured” by mixing it with large amounts of non-fissile U238, rendering it, for all practical purposes, as difficult to convert to a weapon as natural uranium.

Genetic Engineering and the Brave New World of Transhuman Machines

I’ve been reading through a collection of essays on the future of science entitled “What’s Next,” edited by Max Brockman. Today I’ll pick up where I left off in an earlier post, and look at a piece entitled “How to Enhance Human Beings,” by Nick Bostrom.

Once upon a time, in the days before the Nazi paradigm shift, eugenics used to be a topic of polite conversation. Now, of course, the Holy Mother Church of public opinion has spoken on the subject, and only the obvious evildoers among us dare to use the term any more, especially when children are present. Nevertheless, there were some spirited debates on the subject before it became obvious that it was necessary to restrict freedom of speech on the matter for our own good. I have unearthed a few interesting examples, both pro and con, in my archaeological peregrinations, and will post them for your amusement and edification one of these days.

In any event, the subject is now moot. Eugenics has gone the way of the horse and buggy. We are now, or will soon be able to vote with our feet, or genes, as the case may be. Depending on whether our tastes run to biological or mechanical tinkering, we are promised a range of options for ourselves or our offspring to enhance everything from intelligence to lifespan. The emerging possibilities have already turned up in the popular culture in video games such as Bioshock, movies such as Gattaca, and the novels of James Patterson. As one might expect, ethical debates are raging over these technologies. As Nick Bostrom puts it in his essay,

The belief in nature’s wisdom – and corresponding doubts about the prudence of tampering with nature, especially human nature – often manifests as diffusely moral objections to enhancement. Many people have intuitions about the superiority of “the natural” and the troublesomeness of human hubris. Some might base these ideas on theological doctrine, but often there is no such underpinning; often there is nothing more than a discomfort with altering the status quo.

To a large extent, these debates are also moot. Parents are incredibly competitive when it comes to putting their children in better schools, or even on cheerleading squads. Offered the choice between having their children become the enhanced movers and shakers of tomorrow, or the unenhanced restroom attendants and parking valets, they are likely to choose the former. This will be especially true in developed countries where the number of children one chooses to have is often limited by their expense, and in countries like China that legally limit the size of one’s family. Under the circumstances, people are likely to be as indifferent to moral arguments against enhancement as they were to moral arguments against alcohol during Prohibition. The new technology may be used above or below the state’s legal radar, but it will be used.

Bostrom has devoted some thought to the question of whether particular enhancements are advisable or not, considering the matter more from a practical than a moral perspective. He has come up with a system of rules which he calls the evolutionary-optimality challenge. They are discussed in a paper he has posted at his website, and seem a reasonable start on a subject that is likely to attract a lot more attention in coming years.

In the final paragraph of his essay, Bostrom takes up the more speculative question of building “entirely artificial systems of equal complexity and performance” to the human organism. Continuing along these lines, he writes:

At some stage, we may learn how to design new organs and bodies ab initio. Someday we may no longer even rely on biological material to implement our bodies and minds. Freed from most practical limitations, the task would then become to make wise use of our powers to self-modify. In other words, the challenge would shift from being primarily scientific to being primarily moral. If that moral task seems comparatively trivial from our current vantage point, this might reflect our present immaturity.

One hopes he is merely indulging in some end of article hyperbole here. If not, one must ask the question, “Whose morality?” In other words, this is another example of the “objective morality” fallacy I have referred to earlier, consisting of assuming that, because we perceive morality as real and objective, it actually is real and objective. Morality is an evolved characteristic that exists in human beings because it has promoted our survival. Bostrom makes the common mistake of assuming that, because he perceives it as independent of his mind, morality actually is independent of his mind, floating out there in space as a real, objective, thing in itself. He makes the further error of confusing his conscious mind with his genetic material. Morality did not evolve because it promoted the survival of conscious minds. It evolved because it promoted the survival of genetic material. As I have noted earlier, nothing can be reasonably considered more immoral than failing to survive. The idea that one could somehow serve a profound moral cause by accepting genetic death and transferring the mind, an ancillary characteristic evolved only because it, too, has promoted the survival of that genetic material, to a machine, is a logical aberration.


Extraterrestrial Life and Random Numbers

According to a paper cited here (found via Instapundit), extraterrestrial life must be rare in our galaxy. As far as the numbers the two Spanish authors came up with are concerned, I think this comment left by “dnivie” about nails it:

This seems like an excellent example of “If I’m allowed to pick any numbers I like, and multiply them with eachothers, I can arrive at any answer I want”

Be that as it may, life should exist elsewhere. After all, it seems unlikely that all life would eventually evolve into intelligent life. It took about 3.5 billion years of relatively benign conditions, or at least benign enough not to wipe out all life, for us to evolve. That’s more likely to be the exception than the rule. On the other hand, intelligent life must be extremely rare, if not unique. I’m not so sure about the probes mentioned in the paper, but it seems if it were otherwise we should have detected some electromagnetic signal in all the years we’ve been listening. Then again, maybe Carl Sagan’s conjecture was right. Maybe intelligent life forms do tend to self-destruct shortly after they evolve intelligence.


“What’s Next?” Popular Science and the Narrative

Max Brockman, a literary agent at Brockman, Inc., which also represents such familiar names as Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Pinker, recently published a collection of essays by an assortment of young scientific worthies addressing the question of how developments in their respective fields are likely to have “long-term and fundamental effects on the way we live.” Brockman also works with the Edge Foundation, which maintains a website that’s worth a visit. According to the site’s “About” blurb, “The mandate of Edge Foundation is to promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society.” To the extent that they actually promote genuine inquiry and discussion, I wish them well.

In this post, I will look at the first two essays, and, perhaps, take up some of the rest as we go along. They are both interesting artifacts of the interaction of contemporary scientific research and the prevailing academic ideological narrative, which, at this point in our history, is the narrative of the left. As one might expect, the narrative plays a greater or lesser role depending on the social and political implications of research in a given field. For example, its influence is much greater in the environmental and behavioral sciences than in physics. As it happens these are the fields addressed in the first two essays.

The first essay, by Laurence C. Smith, entitled “Will We Decamp for the Northern Rim?” considers the potential impact of global warming on future population shifts. According to Smith,

“Here is what we know currently: First, the warming is just revving up. It is 90 percent certain that continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above the current rates will induce far greater climate change in the twenty-first century than we’ve yet experienced. In every plausible population-growth or greenhouse-gas-emission scenario for the next century (barring some as-yet-undiscovered nonlinearity in the climate system), basic physics dictates that Earth’s climate must continue to warm, with global average temperatures rising between 1.8° C and 4.0°C by the end of this century.”

I agree that, based on what we know, it is probable that the above comment is true. However, the idea that “basic physics dictates” that it will be true “in every plausible population –growth or greenhouse-gas-emission scenario” is pure poppycock. Who decides what is “plausible?” What “basic physics” is Smith referring to? Global climate is a highly nonlinear system with literally billions of degrees of freedom. The computer models currently available do not even approach the level of having a deterministic predictive capability. The data we have to feed into them is both noisy and insufficient. The idea that they could “dictate” anything is palpably absurd.

Why the unscientific lack of error bars in Smith’s dogmatic claim about what “physics dictates?” He tells us that, “In my home state of California, Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asserted, ‘The [climate] debate is over’ – and from a scientific and public-opinion standpoint, he was right.” Again, in my opinion it is probable that Smith’s conclusions about global warming are correct, but the claim that “the debate is over… from a scientific and public-opinion standpoint” implies the nonexistent and scientifically insupportable right of a majority of scientists to dictate to the rest their conclusion that “the debate is over,” and assumes that the only public-opinion that matters is that on the ideological left. Again, what Smith is asserting is an ideological dogma, not a scientific fact. He doesn’t leave us guessing about which side of the political isle he stands on, noting that “If you saw An Inconvenient Truth or read climate-change stories in the press, you already know most of this bad news.” It seems to me that neither Al Gore’s movie nor stories in the press represent a scientific gold standard that could serve as a reliable basis for “knowing” anything. Smith’s implication that they do speaks more to the ideological slant we can expect in his essay than to the intrinsic accuracy of his sources.

In a word, I wouldn’t discount the essay’s contention that the economic significance of the “northern rim” is likely to increase, nor would I stand in the way of those who take Smith’s advice to buy land, not “in Labrador, but maybe in Michigan.” However, his comments regarding the status of the global warming debate seem better calculated to stifle and marginalize ideological opponents than to promote healthy, unconstrained scientific discussion. The goal of popular scientific writing should be to inform, not to indoctrinate.

The second article, by Christian Keysers, is entitled “Mirror Neurons: are we Ethical by Nature?” Thirty or forty years ago, the very suggestion would have landed the author in the doghouse of the ideological left, likely attracting accusations of “fascism” and related political sins in the bargain. No doubt we should consider the fact that he can now not only dare to use such a title, but actually seems unaware that it could even be controversial a sign of scientific “progress.” Indeed, not only does Keysers no longer bump up against any shibboleths of the modern leftist ideological narrative, he actually fits comfortably within it.

The topic of the essay, mirror neurons, is certainly worth writing about. These are neurons that are active during particular actions and sensations, but also respond to the sight and even sound of similar actions or sensations in others. For example, Keysers cites the case of neurons in a monkey that were found to be active when the animal grasped a peanut. In his words, “The surprise came when one of the experimenters grasped a peanut to give it to the monkey. The very same neuron that had responded when the monkey grasped a peanut also responded when the monkey simply saw someone else perform the same action.” He goes on to point out that the phenomenon is not restricted to physical movement, but to feelings and sensations as well. He maintains that the phenomena may not only promote our ability to learn from others, but may be associated with the creation of what he refers to as an “ethical instinct.”

Here, again, we can detect a gradual shift in the terms of the narrative over time. Once upon a time, the very use of the term “instinct” in connection with humans was anathema, and evidence of moral turpitude at best, and connection with the political right at worst. Anyone daring to even venture out on such thin ideological ice chose his words very carefully, preferring “innate predisposition” to “instinct,” and even then running the risk of denunciation as a “pop ethologist” unless the term was carefully hedged about with all the appropriate caveats. The young author seems blithely unaware of these once weighty distinctions. Instead, after announcing the “ethical instinct,” he suggests that the shared circuits associated with mirror neurons promote a strong feeling of empathy. In his words, “Since the same brain areas are active whether we are feeling our own pain or witnessing that of others, this means that the vicarious sharing of others’ feelings is not an abstract consideration but a toned-down equivalent of our own.” He then suggests how this might result in sharing a limited supply of food; “If I eat all the food, I will not only witness but also share my companion’s suffering, whereas if I divide the food I will share his joy and thankfulness. My decision is no longer guided only by my hunger but also by the real pain and pleasure my companion’s pain and pleasure will give me… I believe that the brain mechanisms that make us share the pain and joy of others are the neural bases that intuitively predispose us according to this maxim. Our brain is ethical by design.”

Here, of course, as readers of my previous posts will note, the author commits the common fallacy of assigning a real, objective existence to what he refers to as “ethics,” citing as an example the Golden Rule. There is also no mention of the Amity – Enmity Complex we have discussed earlier, and the author seems unaware of the very existence of the idea. He is, at least aware, of certain related incongruities in the application of his theory posed, for example, by the existence of war. The ideological provenance of the arguments he uses to finesse the issue should be transparent to those who haven’t been asleep during the debates over the Iraq War. In Keysers’ words, “In the military, the distance that separates the generals from the human suffering their armies cause minimizes their empathy and favors self-interested decisions. At the same time, the chain of command strips moral responsibility from the soldiers who do directly witness the suffering. In such a way, empathy can be bypassed in the service of efficiency. The development of weapons that kill at a distance has a similar effect. Insights into the biology of our empathy help us to realize the risk of such distancing and point us toward ways to build the natural mechanisms of empathy into our institutions.”

Before indulging yourself in any amused snorts at Prof. Keysers’ naiveté, gentle reader, allow me to remind you that his essay represents real progress. He admits a genetic basis for ethical behavior, and states very clearly that, “Humans are the result of evolution, and evolution favors individuals who will leave more offspring…” He does close with the comment that, “Mirror neurons – and their gift of insight into the emotions of others – enable us to manipulate other individuals but also prompt us to use this understanding for good and not for evil,” apparently blithely unaware that good and evil are evolutionary constructs themselves. Nevertheless, he is pursuing a line of research that holds forth the promise of eventually leading us to the truth. May we find that truth before our minds are once again closed by new dogmas.

Scientific Conformity

This New York Times science column linked by Instapundit gets it about right on scientific conformity.

As the author notes:

The strength of this urge to conform can silence even those who have good reason to think the majority is wrong. You’re an expert because all your peers recognize you as such. But if you start to get too far out of line with what your peers believe, they will look at you askance and start to withdraw the informal title of “expert” they have implicitly bestowed on you. Then you’ll bear the less comfortable label of “maverick,” which is only a few stops short of “scapegoat” or “pariah.”

Of course, conformity among environmentalists is the current cause célèbre, but I see the same thing going on in the response of the scientific mainstream to “cold fusion.” Despite the intriguing results of recent experiments at SPAWAR by seemingly competent and credible researchers, I continue to hear deprecating remarks by other scientists who probably haven’t read a research paper on cold fusion in the last five years.

Scientific conformity can have unfortunate results. For example, the DOE recently stood up ARPA-E, its version of the military’s DARPA. It received a generous chunk of change ($400M) to fund “high risk, high payoff” research. The solicitation for research proposals for this money hit the street some time ago, and the proposals are already in and are currently being reviewed. I may be pleasantly surprised, but I suspect no cold fusion research will be funded. If not, I hope the cold fusion community screams bloody murder, and someone in Washington listens.

Well, let’s wait and see.